Stuff the English (and Dutch) tomato
Stuff the English (and Dutch) tomato
Somewhere in France, Spain and Italy, people are eating tomatoes Provencal, baked slowly (for at least an hour) with garlic, parsley and anchovies; snails in almond or tomato sauce, with just a little cumin; small, split sardines (truly small sardines, not those fatty, floppy things from Cornwall) baked on sliced tomatoes; tomatoes stuffed with minced pork; and pasta with fresh tomato sauce and basil. "In France, Italy and Spain!" you bleat. "We, too, in Swiss Cottage, Somerset and even Birmingham have been known to stuff a tomato on Saturday evening when people are coming for dinner."
No, sorry, the dish is not the same if the tomatoes are not the same. I looked recently at all the tomatoes in my local greengrocer. There were plum tomatoes, beef tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, vine tomatoes, and "British" tomatoes harvested by two people called Daisy and Maud. In late summer, Europe's Latin countries are bulging with wonderful tomatoes - grown in plentiful, rich soil and quickly ripened, as they have to be, under lots of sun. My local shop had none of these. All except the British ones came from the Netherlands - a land with next to no sun, precious little soil and an addiction to water. You cannot cook any of the dishes above with Dutch tomatoes, and the same goes for the equally popular Dutch peppers, aubergines and courgettes. You cannot even fry the tomatoes for breakfast; they steam.
Latin tomatoes consist largely of tomato flesh. Dutch tomatoes are largely water, pips, pith and skin. If you do not believe me, take one, hold it in the gas flame (You do not have a gas hob? You wouldn't. All right, plunge it in boiling water for a minute), remove the skin, cut the tomato into quarters, salt it, remove the water and pips, scoop out the pith. There, the tomato has entirely disappeared, hasn't it?
My greengrocer says customers demand Dutch tomatoes because they like them; they look nice. I have indeed heard customers in the shop say: "Ooo, they look nice." It is not because it's impossible to get hold of Latin tomatoes; an Italian shop 12 miles away has no difficulty. It is because the English have not, as so often alleged, rediscovered food. They are still ignorant, lazy and besotted with appearance.
Let us be straight about what this really means. Unless I, and the few of you who bother with food, drive 24 miles, I cannot prepare stuffed tomatoes, sardines and tomatoes, or even have fried tomatoes with my breakfast, because of the depraved tastes of my fellow countrymen. The environmental and health fascists rant about the wicked food industry and the supermarkets. But these are not the real problem. They merely provide what the depraved want.
It does not matter too much about the fried tomatoes because breakfast has already been ruined. The depraved have ensured that true bacon is as rare as proper tomatoes. They prefer cheap, watery, gunge-filled bacon from Denmark. In any case, they rarely eat breakfast. Mother is too lazy to prepare it and the rest of the family too lazy to eat it. Some families are so lazy, or so badly organised, that they never eat a proper meal together. The English do not "do" breakfast - the only meal they could have been proud of - except on odd weekends as a "treat". The idea of eating good food as a "treat" has ruined many a restaurant and most domestic food. The secret that all those easy-to- prepare food columnists never dare to mention is that good meals depend on shopping and cooking as part of a daily routine. It cannot be done occasionally, as a treat.
Digby Anderson writes on social policy and food. His new book on friendship, Losing Friends, will be published in November by the Social Affairs Unit